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Pressure grows as migrant numbers look likely to soar

May 25, 2016

Financial Times | In early April the Italian coastguard and a Spanish aircraft rescued more than 300 migrants who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in a boat from Egypt to Italy. What made this incident significant was not its scale — much larger numbers have been rescued, or have drowned, in the Mediterranean — but the boat’s origin and the migrants’ identities.

The boat started out from Egypt, a sign of migrants and migrant-traffickers’ quest for new routes to Europe following an EU-Turkish deal to suppress migration from the Turkish mainland.

The boat’s passengers came from war-ravaged Syria, but also from the Comoros Islands, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, the Palestinian territories and Sudan. This underlined that even an end to Syria’s civil war will not eliminate migratory pressure on Europe. Much of this influx reflects population growth and economic hardship in the Middle East as well as north Africa, the Horn of Africa and south Asia.

Paul Scheffer, a Dutch politician and immigration expert at Tilburg university, argues that the Arab world’s population is expected to soar to 630m in 2050 from 360m in 2010. Tens of millions will be under the age of 24. “An imbalance like this will add to the pressure on these societies, with a large group of young people in a hopeless situation who only want one thing — to get out,” he wrote in an essay for the Policy Network research institute.

Under Japan’s chairmanship, G7 leaders meeting at the Ise-Shima summit will try to highlight what they have in common on refugee and migration policies.

At a previous summit in Germany last year, they emphasised their determination to crack down on criminal networks: “We reaffirm our commitment to prevent and combat the trafficking of migrants, and to detect, deter and disrupt human trafficking in and beyond our borders.”

The International Organization for Migration estimates that, worldwide, some 40,000 migrants died between 2000 and 2014. More than 22,000 lost their lives trying to reach Europe, and more than 6,000 died aiming to cross the Mexican-US border. Much blood is on the traffickers’ hands.

In the world’s refugee crises, some G7 nations are frontline states and others are not. Japan received a record 7,586 asylum applications last year, with Nepalis leading the list, but this number pales in comparison with 442,000 applications made in 2015 in Germany. The German figure reflects the temporary open-door policy that Angela Merkel, chancellor, declared last summer for Syrian refugees.

Japan accepted 27 refugees last year — up from 11 in 2014 for sure, but a number best described as modest. Europe is closer than Japan to trouble spots in the Middle East and north Africa, but it seems likely that other factors also account for the very low intake of refugees in Japan.

In an article for Global Public Policy Watch, an online politics platform, Lucy Tasker, a British commentator on Japan, notes that Tokyo eased strict immigration policies imposed since the second world war around the time of the G7’s creation in the 1970s. The first arrivals were mostly Vietnamese refugees.

Between 1982 and 2008, however, Japan accepted only 508 refugees. “It was as if Japan felt like it had done its job to please the international community,” contends Ms Tasker. “Japan is a largely homogenous country, unused to ‘cultural melting pots’ or the ‘multiculturalism’ that is so vibrant in many western cities such as London, Paris and New York.”

Japan is, though, among the world’s most financially generous donors to refugee causes. Apart from its direct aid to Egypt, Lebanon and other countries hosting refugees from Syria and Iraq, Japan is the fourth-largest donor to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Japan’s contribution in 2015 was $174m, fourth behind the US at $1.35bn, the UK at $262m and the 28-nation EU at $192m.

In some G7 nations, especially France after last year’s murderous attacks in Paris and the rise of the far-right National Front, political discussion of refugees has become entwined with issues of counter-terrorism, security and national identity.

In the US, Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, labelled Ms Merkel “insane” for accepting so many refugees. A flurry of robberies and a number of sexual assaults on women in German cities on New Year’s Eve shocked public opinion and led to this year’s tougher government stance on economic migrants, many of whom Germany now deports to their countries of origin.

Arguably, Canada is the G7 country that — other than Germany last year — has striven hardest to put a positive accent on its refugee and migrant policy. Canada plans to resettle 55,800 refugees this year, up from about 25,000 in 2015. Most will be Syrian.

In what John McCallum, Canada’s immigration minister, calls “a significant shift in immigration policy towards reuniting more families, building our economy and upholding Canada’s humanitarian traditions”, the government plans to take in a total of 300,000 immigrants this year.

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